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Sun: Tsongas takes 'pot' shot at Trump during his signing of her opioid bill

By Chris Lisinski, clisinski@lowellsun.com

UPDATED:   01/11/2018 05:06:19 PM EST

 

WASHINGTON -- As questions swirl about the future of recreational marijuana in Massachusetts amid the threat of a new federal crackdown, U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas used a public event alongside President Donald Trump to urge the administration to focus instead on opioids.

 

Tsongas and more than a dozen other members of Congress were gathered around the president's desk in the Oval Office for the signing of the INTERDICT Act, which Tsongas and Sen. Ed Markey helped introduce. The legislation is designed to combat fentanyl trafficking. Attendees took turns making remarks about the bipartisan spirit displayed in the bill's success and the need to address the spread of opioids.

 

But Tsongas went a step further.

 

"Mr. President, I appreciate your celebrating this bipartisan moment," she began. "It's a testament to what can happen for the benefit of the American people when we come together on a scourge such as fentanyl and the opioid addiction. And I encourage you to focus your efforts on further funding and thinking about opioids -- and marijuana we can talk about at another time."

 

There was some laughter.

 

"OK. That's OK. That's OK," Trump replied before moving on to another representative's remarks.

 

Tsongas was the only member of Congress to mention marijuana at the signing, which came six days after Attorney General Jeff Sessions withdrew an Obama-era policy and effectively opened the door for federal prosecutors to target marijuana markets in states where recreational use of the substance is allowed.

 

The sudden decision triggered a flurry of questions about how states such as Massachusetts, whose voters approved legalization of recreational marijuana in 2016, would be affected.

 

Andrew Lelling, who became the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts less than a month ago, has said he cannot guarantee that any aspect of the state-sanctioned marijuana industry is safe from federal prosecution.

 

Sales of recreational marijuana in the Bay State were set to begin in July 2018. The state Cannabis Control Commission does not to intend to stop its work building to that point despite Lelling's comments.

 

In a Thursday interview with The Sun, Tsongas said she wanted to seize the opportunity of speaking to the president directly to stress that targeting marijuana in states where it is legal is a "misplaced emphasis."

 

"On a too-frequent basis, I do hear of the challenge of opioids in this country and in particular the ways in which fentanyl has made opioids more deadly," she said. "I can't say on a daily basis I hear anything about marijuana."

 

Several other Massachusetts leaders have pushed back against Sessions's decision. Some, such as Gov. Charlie Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey, criticized the move despite initially opposing the legalization of recreational marijuana just as Tsongas did.

 

"The big public health crisis we're dealing with in the commonwealth these days is opioid addiction and street drugs like fentanyl," Baker said Tuesday in remarks directed at Lelling. "Let's focus on the stuff that right now is wreaking havoc across our commonwealth and recognize and understand that the voters of Massachusetts voted to create a legal, regulated, recreational marijuana market here in the commonwealth."

 

The change in policy outcry even prompted some outcry from Republican leaders in states where marijuana is legal. Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado threatened to delay confirmation of Department of Justice nominees in response, claiming that Sessions went back on his earlier word not to pursue such action.

 

On Wednesday, Gardner told NPR that he had met with Sessions but that neither had budged.

 

"There was no breakthrough yet," Gardner told NPR. "But I hope there will be."

 

Trump himself said on the campaign trail in July 2016 that he would not use federal authority to target legal recreational marijuana sales in states.

 

Information from the State House News Service was used in this report.